When retired biologist George Smith picked up the phone at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, he wasn’t expecting it to be the Swedish Academy.
“It’s kind of a common prank for your friends to put on a fake Swedish accent and tell you that you won,” Smith said. “I thought maybe it was a joke but the line was so scratchy and there was so much interference, I thought nah, it wasn’t one of my friends. They wouldn’t have such a bad connection.”
Through the phone call, Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Columbia, learned that he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a method called phage display in the 1980s. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. Smith used them to create a tool that would help identify antibodies, molecules in the body that identify invading pathogens, that would be the most useful for binding to molecules that are associated with certain diseases.
Smith, 77, is the first professor in the University of Missouri’s history to win the Nobel Prize. He worked for the university for 40 years and retired in 2015.
“I’m ecstatic. That reflects on the whole [University of Missouri] system,” said Tom George, chancellor and professor of chemistry and physics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It’s great for the whole state of Missouri as well, puts us even more on the map. George Smith is a remarkable man.”
The Nobel Prize in chemistry also went to two other researchers, Frances Arnold, a chemical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and Gregory Winter, a biochemist at the M.R.C. Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England.
Winter advanced Smith’s phage display research by using it to develop antibody drugs that could treat a number of diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first of these drugs in 2002. That was adalimumab, sold under the brand name Humira, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases.
When Smith worked on the technology 30 years ago, he had a small sense that he was developing something significant in his field.
“Very soon after we developed [phage display], it soon became clear there were many applications,” he said.
Regarding the prize itself, Smith said that winning it would have made a bigger difference in his life if he had received it while he was still a professor.
“It would’ve been nice if I got the prize like 10 years ago so a whole bunch of grant proposals that didn’t get funded probably would’ve gotten funded,” Smith said. “I would’ve had a more blossoming end to my career. I think my life will pretty much go on, as it has in the last three years.”
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